To Be 19 Again

four person standing at top of grassy mountain
Photo by Helena Lopes

Recently I was thinking about young adulthood and had a few conversations about it. I guess I’ve been reflecting about that time and space of youth when I had feelings of uncertainty about my future, juxtaposed next to the similar but different circumstances I find myself in today.

Do you ever wonder why we spend our youth trying to get away from our parents, clawing our way to independence and privacy and the right to live however we want without shame or pressure or somebody else’s rules and worldview imposed on us, only to throw all of that freedom away by getting married and/or having children? Back to square one. It’s kind of weird, right?

I guess I didn’t think that through when I made the leap into domesticity.

Young adulthood: the period of time in your late-teens/early twenties when you lack gainful employment, a place of your own, overall life experience, and your brain is still developing. You have lots of free time and a general lack of responsibility, but you do not realize this, and therefore will probably squander it. Emotions are high and low. Everything feels like do or die–there is rarely middle ground. You are more impulsive. Unsure. Your time is spent sleeping like a vampire during the day and staying up all night, and you are often in a perpetual trance of boredom. Scarcity syndrome rules your thoughts, and it always feels like the first person you fall in love with will be the only significant other you will ever have, and that first job you set your heart on will be the only one for you, and your current friends will be the only ones you will ever have fun with for the rest of your life. Everything feels scarce, like you can’t possibly duplicate whatever feels good right now. You spend copious amounts of time listening to music in your room with the door shut, lost in thoughts that you will eventually deem trivial. You can not visualize what your life will look like at 30 or 40 or beyond. You are caught in the present, and yet you are rarely present in your mind. Your mind is like a temperamental toddler prone to tantrums. Your life is stitched together by two threads: the greatest moments ever, or those moments when you feel like your life is over. There is an entire middle between the two extremes, but you don’t see it. You will not understand the power you had in that middle space until much later in your life.

This is all normal.

It’s tough growing into adulthood. By the time you fully figure it out, you’re dead.

I am 36-years-old, but in many ways I can relate to the 19-year-olds. First, I’m not married, like many of the young adults. I can understand their anxiety about relationships, or lack thereof. And yet I’ve been married before, so I also don’t feel a burning desire to force a serious relationship, or to settle for anyone who sets off red flags. If anything, having experienced both ends of the coin, I understand the pros and cons very clearly, and it gives me a better handle on time and perspective. There is desperation in youth; I am glad to have outgrown it.

The 19-year-olds and I don’t have our own privacy. The youngsters have to worry about their parents poking around in their business. Walking into the house in the early hours of the morning to be greeted by your mom on the couch, waiting for you, asking a zillion questions about where you were and who you were with. Personal belongings are subject to search and seizure. There might be siblings to contend with. Instead of parents, I have children who stymie my privacy. I have a 3-year-old digging around in my drawers. I have an 8-year-old asking me what something meant in my inbox. I have children waiting for me to return home. I have babysitters to juggle and domestic responsibilities to cover. I am neither free nor able to live in the comfort of privacy.

I lived alone before getting married. It was a high priority item on my bucket list. I knew I wanted to be a mother and that I wanted to get married, but I also knew I wanted to travel and live alone before doing it. So I did.

Here’s the thing.

I realized I didn’t want to give up traveling once I was married and a mother. I wanted to keep traveling.

It was hard to convince my husband that it was worth the money, but once we got past the financial fog of new home ownership and the sticker shock of having children, it started to become a priority again.

I once thought that you had to pick one or the other. That you could be the traveling type who did whatever she wanted, or you traded that in to be a mother and a wife who sticks around the homestead.

I never considered the fact that maybe you don’t have to pick.

You don’t have to go from one extreme to the other. It doesn’t have to be black or white. Freedom or domestic captivity. Privacy or no privacy.

You can find a comfortable spot in the middle.

I used to love to travel. I still do, so I take my children. Some people feel it is important to inform me that my children won’t remember their travels. Why they feel compelled to tell me this, I’m not exactly sure. Maybe they are justifying their own decisions out loud and forget that I am standing there. I don’t know. Sometimes people will make comments about the money spent. They apparently think the new car or TV or the many other things they spend their money on are not up for scrutiny, but my expenditures are.  Whatever the case, our lives are made up of choices. I make mine. 

Well, the short answer to why I travel with my children is that I like to do it. I refuse to submit to domestic captivity. I am afflicted by wanderlust, and I don’t want to stop. I hope my kids will grow up with a foundation that make them also thirsty to see the world. So far it’s working. I don’t expect them to have clear memories of that time they pet a koala in Australia, but they will have an appreciation for the world.

Do you take your kids to church? Why do you bother if they won’t remember specifically what they did each Sunday? I take my kids to temple on Sundays because a) I am building and shaping their foundations in life, and b) I want to go to temple on Sundays. It’s exactly the same with traveling.

There are other things I have refused to give up. Projects. I am more productive than ever at 36, even as a widowed mother of 3 little ones. What I lack in the time that I had as a 19-year-old, I have gained in perspective, experience, and the ability to control my mind and manage my schedule.

I believe that there is a core version of me locked inside of my inner being. She has existed since my birth. This is the authentic me. She has evolved over time. This version of me exists separate from the other identities I embrace, such as motherhood, wife, widow, friend, daughter, teacher, etc.  

I have to admit that the core version of myself had been buried beneath marriage and motherhood for quite a while. Deprioritized. Ignored. It’s easy to do when we get busy, or when we live with other humans. Women are particularly susceptible to the urge of sacrificing ourselves at the altar of motherhood and marriage.

It took widowhood to shatter the life I had grown into–a version that had strayed far from who I wanted to be because I somehow believed in rules that were not real. I had to become engulfed in pain and grief to finally emerge from the damage and recognize glimpses of the 19-years-old me again–that former life before domesticity dumped a blizzard of obligations and misconceptions over my head.

That was my opportunity to rebuild. On my terms, in a way that would be authentic to the person who I had always been. A time to do what I wanted to do.

I feel like being frequently around young adults has helped cushion the blow for me.

Young adults are a great reminder that I have been in that place of uncertainty before, that I have the skills to survive, and that it isn’t a bad thing to be a beginner in life. The fears, the anxiety, the nervousness, the not knowing–these were all part of the excitement. We don’t realize it until it’s over.

My situation, in an unwanted way, let me press the rewind button and put me back in a place of being a beginner. I didn’t ask for it. I got dragged into it kicking and screaming, but when I calmed down, I was able to see that it wasn’t all terrible. There could be happiness again. I didn’t have to have the 19-year-old scarcity syndrome. I could choose to believe, based on experience, that there are an infinite number of possibilities and paths to take in our lives. 

It’s easy to forget those early experiences.

We live in a world where there are very clear boundaries between people. We get locked into worlds that are not supposed to overlap. We segregate by age. Young people hang out with young people. Older people with older people. We segregate by reproduction status. Moms with moms. By marital status. Single people with single people.

I recommend staying close to 19. And if you’re 19, staying close to 45. And 85 and lots of other ages. This business of segregating ourselves by age and marital status and reproduction status is what tricks us into thinking we don’t have anything in common when we all do.

It takes just one second on a Wednesday morning to find your husband dying to find yourself single again.

It takes one car accident to leave you without the ability to walk, and suddenly you’re thrust into a group of people with similar challenges that you never thought you would relate to.

People have lost children and found themselves suddenly child-less.

People have lost their money.

Their freedom.

Their sanity.

When you begin to understand the fragility of life, you realize that everything you have right now–these things you think define you–can all be lost tomorrow. Then who are you? Many people go their entire lives without ever finding themselves.

I think about all of this in the context of Madison, our family’s babysitter-19-year-old-honorary-family-member-too-old-to-be-my-honorary-daughter-too-young-to-be-my-sister-somewhere-in-between. (We really need to a word in English that means family, but not by blood.) Anyway, it’s fascinating to witness her stretch her wings in the adult world, as a 19-year-old. I remember what it was like. To be unsure. To venture into new territory. To be inexperienced. To not want to fail, but not knowing what to do either, and to inevitably make mistakes. Over and over again. 

The 19-year-olds remind me of where I came from. What I went through. It makes me appreciate who I am right now, and I realize that maybe I have something to offer them in terms of experience and insight. There are so many ways I can’t relate to a 19-year-old today, and numerous ways that I still can through the human experience. My older friends have life experience I can’t relate to yet, but I enjoy their company and the unique perspective they bring to the friendship. Since I have always had older friends, there have been many ways I’ve learned from them. Learned what to do. What not to do. I’ve been inspired. Disappointed. It has helped me visualize who I want to become in the future by watching my older friends experience their lives. We need people to learn from. I especially think young adults need older friends to learn from. Nobody gives us an instruction manual on how to be human. How else are we supposed to do it?

Recently I read a New York Times article about Mr. Rogers. It talked about how he viewed children as superior. Their innocence. Their lack of jadedness about life. It talked about his respect for those in need. “And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.” Even though I am Buddhist, and therefore not God-subscribing, I respect this reverence.

Removing feelings of superiority, and believing that there is something to be learned from everyone. Realizing that you can help others, and by doing so, you are also helping yourself.

We are all interconnected. We all came from the same origin of life, and we all die. We don’t control our beginning or ending, but we have power in the middle. Our 19-year-old selves didn’t know what to do with our middles, but our older selves should know better. The question is, do we use that knowledge? Those middles are meant to be shared. The middle of our lives, the time and space between our birth and death, is much better lived when we do it together, with kindness, empathy, and a heart to want to help others. The world would be a magical place if we all helped each other live our best lives irregardless of age or sex or race or economic status or religion or any of the ways that we force people into the categories of “other.”

I believe, in the spirit of Mr. Rogers, that we can start by taking small steps toward that goal.

One step might be widening your circle of friends. Talking to people–people who are not exactly like you. Share your stories. Listen to each other. Have a sincere desire to want to help people live their best lives, and to seek your own best life. Share your life with a diverse group of friends. 

I feel like all of this certainly begins with investing in our youth, but realizing that the support has to continue into young adulthood and be ongoing through the various stages of life.  Supporting each other. We are all in need of support. 

It’s a shift in our mindset, to start seeing us all as one.

1 Comment

  1. I think this is my favorite essay so far Teresa! I definitely needed to read this. And as a 19 year old, i definitely appreciate this. By the way please check your emails, i sent an email to both your school one and the one you have mentioned on here.


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